ON THE FIFTH floor of Parker Center, wedged in among the cubicles in the personnel records section, sit two laundry carts like those you might find in the basement of a large hotel.
These carts can be viewed as a barometer of the Los Angeles Police Department's current health because they contain the city-issued equipment turned in by officers who retire or resign from the department. On the day I was there not long ago, the carts were filled to overflowing with leather gun belts, ballistic vests, Kevlar helmets and all the other gear and tackle an officer wears or carries throughout his career.
A police officer attends to this equipment, cataloging each item as it's handed in, and I asked him how long it takes to fill up the carts. "That's just from this week," he said. "We get one or two a day coming in here to quit."
Even as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton trumpet their plan to add 1,000 officers to the LAPD in the coming years, they neglect their obligation to retain the ones they already have. As of April 30, 136 officers had retired from the department this year, according to the Police Protective League. Even more troubling, another 136 have resigned, simply walking away from the job before they were eligible for a pension. Not only does this substantially exceed the expected attrition rate, but many of these officers have left for jobs in other police departments. Why?
In most cases, it isn't the money. Though some suburban agencies are more generous than the LAPD, few of these officers would tell you that they were lured away by the promise of a bigger paycheck. For most, it's simply a desire to be treated fairly while doing a thankless, dirty and dangerous job. In this regard, Bratton has failed to live up to the promise of his first year in L.A.
When Bratton was sworn in as chief in 2002, he inherited a department that had been thoroughly demoralized under his predecessor, Bernard C. Parks. Parks had imposed an absurd disciplinary system that required a full-scale investigation of every personnel complaint, no matter how petty or transparently false.
Officer morale plummeted, and cops began fleeing the department far more quickly than replacements could be hired and trained. Untold thousands of hours were wasted on these complaints even as hundreds of murders went unsolved. Cops were discouraged from doing their jobs, and the city's crime victims paid the price.
Things began to improve virtually from the day Bratton arrived. In his April 2003 message to the department, he acknowledged the excesses of Parks' complaint system and promised improvements. "The past history of a flawed disciplinary system," he wrote, "will not keep officers from doing the job they signed up to do."
We could not have been more relieved. We went to work bringing about the drop in crime that continues to this day: Homicides went from 647 in 2002 to 487 last year, and other categories saw similar reductions.
But our optimism is now largely forgotten. Bratton has abandoned the flinty resolve that marked his tenure as commissioner of the New York Police Department and his first year with the LAPD. Instead, he's showing a previously unseen willingness to sacrifice officers involved in controversial incidents in order to appease fractious political interests, like the demagogues in the "No Justice, No Peace" crowd.
Though crime continues to fall in most areas of Los Angeles, seven of the city's 19 patrol divisions have seen increases in violent crime this year. The change has been gradual, but LAPD officers are once again showing a reluctance to do their jobs, and this can only embolden those individuals eager to take advantage of any perceived police retreat. This reluctance stems not from any fear of police work's inherent physical dangers, which most cops readily accept, but rather from fear of placing their livelihoods in jeopardy should politicians or commanding officers disapprove of their actions during some violent and unpredictable encounter.
On the night of June 3, for instance, Officer Kristina Ripatti was shot and paralyzed by a career criminal who had robbed a South L.A. gas station moments earlier. Ripatti's partner then shot and killed the attacker. It was the 11th time LAPD officers had come under fire this year.
Police Commission President John Mack was characteristically obtuse. "Typically, this commission, the department and the public focus quite a bit of attention on the issue of violence," he said. "Often, the focus is on violence in use-of-force incidents by officers ... but we don't focus much on violence against police officers, and we have a very, very serious, tragic incident here."
The hypocrisy is stunning yet unsurprising. If Ripatti or her partner had somehow managed to shoot first, how long would it have taken Mack and others to find fault with them? Not long.